Mrs Grundy

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Mrs Grundy is a figurative name for an extremely conventional or priggish person,[1] a personification of the tyranny of conventional propriety.[2] A tendency to be overly fearful of what others might think is sometimes referred to as grundyism.

Mrs Grundy originated as an unseen character in Thomas Morton's 1798 five-act comedy Speed the Plough.[2] References to Mrs Grundy were eventually so well established in the public imagination that in Samuel Butler's 1872 novel Erewhon, the goddess Ydgrun, an anagram for Grundy, dictates social norms. As a figure of speech, "Mrs Grundy" can be found throughout the English-speaking world.

Original appearance[edit]

Curiously for so famous a character, Mrs Grundy never actually appears in the play which introduced her, but is the continual object of the boastful Dame Ashfield's envious watchfulness, as is shown in the very first scene:

Ashfield. Well, Dame, welcome whoam. What news does thee bring vrom market?
Dame. What news, husband? What I always told you; that Farmer Grundy's wheat brought five shillings a quarter more than ours did.
Ash. All the better vor he.
Dame. Ah! the sun seems to shine on purpose for him.
Ash. Come, come, missus, as thee hast not the grace to thank God for prosperous times, dan't thee grumble when they be unkindly a bit.
Dame. And I assure you, Dame Grundy's butter was quite the crack of the market.
Ash. Be quiet, woolye? aleways ding, dinging Dame Grundy into my ears — what will Mrs Grundy zay? What will Mrs Grundy think — Canst thee be quiet, let ur alone, and behave thyzel pratty?
Dame. Certainly I can — I'll tell thee, Tummas, what she said at church last Sunday.
Ash. Canst thee tell what parson zaid? Noa — Then I'll tell thee — A' zaid that envy were as foul a weed as grows, and cankers all wholesome plants that be near it — that's what a' zaid.
Dame. And do you think I envy Mrs Grundy indeed?

Although later usage positions her chiefly as a feared dispenser of disapproval, the Mrs Grundy of the play is, in Dame Ashfield's daydreams, not so much a figure of dread as a cowed audience to the accomplishments of the Ashfield family. As the play progresses, Dame Ashfield and her comical musings soon drop from sight to make way for melodrama.

Victorian heyday[edit]

With the Victorian era, its new morality of decency, domesticity, serious-mindedness, propriety and community discipline on the one hand, its humbug, hypocrisy and self-deception on the other,[3] Mrs Grundy swiftly rose to a position of censorious authority. In John Poole's 1841 novel Phineas Quiddy, Poole wrote "Many people take the entire world to be one huge Mrs. Grundy, and, upon every act and circumstance of their lives, please, or torment themselves, according to the nature of it, by thinking of what that huge Mrs. Grundy, the World, will say about it".[4] In 1869, John Stuart Mill, himself very aware of the potentially tyrannical power of social opprobrium,[5] referred to Mrs. Grundy in The Subjection of Women, noting that “Whoever has a wife and children has given hostages to Mrs. Grundy”.[6]

Butler in his 1872 Erewhon noted of Ydgrun that “she was held to be both omnipresent and omnipotent; but she was not an elevated conception, and was sometimes both cruel and absurd”.[7] His own preference was for the small group he called High Ydgrunites, who broadly accepted the low-norm conventions of the goddess, but were capable of rising above Mrs Grundy and her claims, if need be.[8]

With the fin de siècle erosion of the Victorian moral consensus,[9] Mrs Grundy began to lose her power, and by the 1920s she was already little more than a faded laughing-stock,[10] being mocked for example in the advice book for teens, Mrs Grundy is Dead (New York: Century, 1930). A later appearance as the whitehaired schoolteacher in Archie comics in 1941, however, has kept the name alive.

Linguistic associations[edit]

While not strictly onomatopoeia, the name ‘Grundy’ nevertheless has sound associations with underlying mental dissatisfaction as evidenced linguistically in words such as ‘grumble’, ‘mumble’, ‘grunt’, and ‘gruntled’.[11]

Roget's Thesaurus places Grundyism under prudery, linked most closely to euphemism.[12]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Eponyms from Wordcraft".
  2. ^ a b Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Grundy, Mrs" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 12 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 641.
  3. ^ M Sadleir, Trollope (London 1945) p. 30-6
  4. ^ Mrs Grundy Origin
  5. ^ J S Mill, On Liberty (Oxford 2008) p. 8
  6. ^ Mill, John Stuart (1869). The Subjection of Women (1869 first ed.). London: Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer. p. 167. Retrieved 8 September 2014.
  7. ^ S Butler, Erewhon (London 1933) p. 144
  8. ^ Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism' (Princeton 1972) p. 232
  9. ^ C H Sisson, English Poetry 1900-1950 (Manchester 1981) p. 17
  10. ^ Mrs Grundy Origin
  11. ^ T Gonda, Selected Studies (1976) p. 226
  12. ^ B Kirkpatrick ed., Roget's Thesaurus (Penguin 1998) p. 650
  13. ^ C S Lewis, That Hideous Strength (London 1945) p. 162
  14. ^ De La Mare, Collected Poems (London 1979) p. 99
  15. ^ The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, February 24, 1947
  16. ^ Martin Seymour-Smith, Hardy (London 1994) p. 185
  17. ^ Forster, E. M. (1972). Two Cheers for Democracy. London: Edward Arnold. p. 26. ISBN 0713156589.

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